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News & Reviews

Alabama Roots Biographies

By: Various Authors
Reviewed by: Rebecca Dempsey
Seacoast Publishing
$7.95, Paperback

Julia Tutwiler, Amelia Gayle Gorgas, and Jennifer Chandler are Alabamians who distinguished themselves by overcoming obstacles unique to their respective goals and the times in which they lived. Components of the Alabama Roots series, these three biographies are written in simple but engaging prose designed to interest third through eighth graders, and they are educational, entertaining, and inspiring. Roz Morris, Zelda Oliver-Miles, and Tom Bailey have thoroughly researched their subjects to create memorable characters who are an integral part of Alabama’s history.

Morris draws Julia Tutwiler as an unconventional person who cared nothing for fashion or homemaking, and who eschewed nineteenth-century society’s expectations to devote her life to crusading for women’s educational rights and better treatment of convicts.

Morris clearly articulates a resounding irony that patriarchal attitudes which denied women education in the early part of the nineteenth century was the very thing that opened the door for women’s enrollment at the University of Alabama in 1893. The grant given by the federal government in 1831 contained the phrase: “...a generous gift for the purpose of establishing an institution in 1831 for the education of the youth of the state.” The assumption that only young men would be considered “youth” gave Julia Tutwiler the legal foothold to fight for the rights of women. Despite several typographical errors, Julia Tutwiler: Alabama Crusader (2000) is an absorbing biography.

Tom Bailey’s account of the sacrifices Jennifer Chandler made in order to become an Olympic champion is both inspiring and sobering. As an adolescent, Ms. Chandler broke up with a boyfriend and gave up social life with her peers in order to pursue her goal of being a world class diver. Jennifer Chandler: Olympic Champion Diver (2005) speaks to young readers of the risks as well as the rewards of pursuing a dream with single-minded determination. Bailey’s fine writing makes this an enjoyable read.

Zelda Oliver-Miles chronicles the life of the capable and compassionate Amelia Gayle Gorgas, who taught slave children to read when it was illegal to do so and who became postmistress and librarian at the University of Alabama. While carefully researched, this biography would have benefitted from further editing. Oliver-Miles contradicts herself once when she writes that Amelia and her husband Josiah had never been apart before, just four pages after an enforced separation due to Josiah’s military duties. A further use of interesting anecdotes to balance the account of the many illnesses and babies born to extended family members would have enriched the narrative. Nevertheless, Amelia Gayle Gorgas: First Woman of Position (2005) is a valuable addition to the Alabama Roots series. April 2009

Rebecca Dempsey is a recent Master of Arts in English graduate of the University of Montevallo.

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